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Operatic Hopscotch hits the road across LA

Experimental experience finds audience members listening to librettos while traveling around town

Hopscotch performers
Phillip King (harp), Jonah Levy and Delaram Kamareh ride in style. (Photo/Dana Ross)

People do many things while stuck in LA traffic, but sing arias?

Hopscotch, a new so-called mobile opera, premiered last weekend to critical and popular acclaim. The unique experience was created by The Industry, an independent company behind experimental productions that expand the definition of opera. It unfolds throughout the city in unconventional locations — the Bradbury Building, Chinatown and even the Los Angeles River — as audience members travel to the venues in 24 cars, often sitting next to the performers and musicians.

The offbeat production, directed by Yuval Sharon, features an artistic team that represents a cross-section of classical and new music in Los Angeles, including more than 20 faculty, alumni and students of the USC Thornton School of Music. It’s a showcase for the music of six Los Angeles composers — two of whom, Veronika Krausas and Andrew Norman, are USC Thornton faculty members, and one, Andrew McIntosh ’12, an alumnus.

Krausas, associate professor of practice in the composition department at USC Thornton, believes that the intimacy of the production is a way of integrating viewers into the story.

“In addition to the musicians and actors, both you, as an audience member, and the city of LA, become characters in the piece,” she said.

No solitary confinement this time

The Industry is known for integrating audience members into their performances — and the city itself. Their 2014 production of Christopher Cerrone’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated opera, Invisible Cities, took place at LA’s Union Station, with audience members wandering freely, tuning in to the singers and musicians via wireless headphones.

“I love working with Yuval,” Krausas said. “He has such a refreshing outlook on life and art and manages to create experiences that engage both audiences and performers.”

Hopscotch was inspired by Julio Cortazar’s novel of the same name; each of the six composers crafted portions of a new story, in collaboration with a team of librettists.

It was great fun to watch a piece being born in this collective way.

Andrew Norman

“Usually I spend months and months in solitary confinement, planning every last detail of a piece that only becomes a collaborative act when it is finally performed,” Norman said. “But with Hopscotch, I was collaborating with all sorts of artists from the get-go. It was great fun to watch a piece being born in this collective way, to watch it being formed out of a genuine exchange of ideas.”

Which route would you take?

With action spread across dozens of central Los Angeles locations, including downtown, Boyle Heights, the Arts District and Little Tokyo, Hopscotch audiences experience one of three distinct “routes”: Red, Yellow or Green, with each offering just a glimpse of a much larger narrative.

One of the musicians on the Red route is Matt Otto MM ’13, a horn player and DMA candidate who performs a scene by composer Ellen Reid set on the rooftop of a Toy District loft.

Twenty-four times a day, Otto and fello horn player Tawnee Lynn Pumphrey MM ’05 meet arriving cars at a downstairs service entrance and then dash up a stairwell to take their places for the performance, just as bewildered audience members step out onto a spectacular urban vista.

When we got to the first tech rehearsal, I was like ‘what did I get myself into?’

Matt Otto

“It’s one of the most complex creative endeavors I’ve ever been involved with,” Otto said. “When we got to the first tech rehearsal, I was like ‘what did I get myself into?’”

Krausas wrote four scenes for the production: a film-noir-inspired dream sequence that takes place in the Bradbury Building; chapters that take place in an Airstream trailer or while driving through a cemetery; and a scene set in a Chinatown pedestrian arcade, which features tarot cards and a music box that the composer crafted specially for the production.

“There’s so much going on, and there’s no way you’re going to get everything,” Krausas said. “But you get this wonderful sense of adventure.”

Tough logistics

Needless to say, with more than 100 musicians and artists involved in the performance, the logistics presented serious creative challenges for the composers. In order for Krausas’ Bradbury Building scene to move succinctly through the structure’s labyrinthine interior, she was confronted by issues of timing and communication, among both performers and roving audience members.

“We had to factor in ‘how long does something take?’ and ‘how do you signal the musicians?’,” she said. “If someone’s on the first floor and another performer’s on the fourth floor, they have to know that something’s happening.” In this way, Krausas described the opera as “a little bit like a film score, coordinating all of the elements. It’s not just about writing the music.”

Otto’s delicately timed scene atop the Toy District loft not only incorporates musicians on adjacent rooftops, but a singer in the throes of the opera’s dramatic conclusion.

“Logistically, it was a little rough at first,” he said. “But once we made it through rehearsals and hit our stride, the music and the emotions of the story really started to shine through.”

While tickets for the opera’s 24 cars are largely sold out (an additional weekend of performances will go on sale this week), the general public is invited to experience Hopscotch from the production’s central hub located on the downtown campus of SCI-Arc (The Southern California Institute of Architecture), where live video and audio streams reveal the totality of the mobile experience. At the end of each performance day, the cars and performers converge on the hub for a spectacular finale, featuring music by Norman, which is also free to the public.

The opening weekend of Hopscotch was an overwhelming success, and Krausas believes that the production offers audience members an entirely new perspective of Los Angeles.

“It’s rediscovering your city as a tourist,” Krausas said. “It’s very magical in that way.”

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Operatic Hopscotch hits the road across LA

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